“Madison Avenue” And “The Car Guys” Come Together In A Real Sleazefest

Mad Men takes place inside a fictional Manhattan ad agency, but the fiction that comes from Matt Wiener’s head is real. And the show’s creator is hell bent on depicting a moral realism, which he clearly has a gift for. With that said, what can we draw from the scenes in episode 511, “The Other Woman”?

SPOLIER ALERT: Joan sleeps with a prospective client for a 5% partner’s stake in the agency. And Peggy quits, after Don tosses money in her face and chides, “You want to go to Paris (on a shoot), go to Paris.” So, disrespect is in the tainted air.

In the previous episode, Joan is served divorce papers in the agency lobby, an act which makes her raging mad. Joan’s power over men is physical, but it’s also psychological. Her creepy husband took advantage of both, and Joan, now free from him for good, has lived to fight another day. That she does so by giving her body to a cretin is disgusting, but also empowering. Joan ends up on top, to put it in base terms.

Meanwhile, Don is convincing the car guys that their car isn’t a car at all, it’s a vixen, like Joan. But unlike Joan, you can turn this one on any time you desire. After his pre-mumble, Don delivers the tagline: “Jaguar — At Last Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own.”

The agency’s campaign, although fictional, is a classic example of inadequacy marketing, as described by Jonah Sachs in his new book, Winning The Story Wars. Sachs, a creative director at Free Range Studios, believes “reorienting our myths away from the adolescent, depressed consumer mind-set and toward the empowered citizen worldview is a powerful first step in reshaping our society for the better.” He calls the high-minded approach Empowerment Marketing and says “beleaguered audiences often experience empowerment marketing stories as a celebrated breath of fresh air.”

The choice between the high road and the low is always there, waiting to test us. Brands can choose to poke people in their sore spots and show them their supposed inadequacies, in hope that they will buy — something Nir Eyal calls “emotion arbitrage,” the practice of satiating the need for a particular feeling with a product or service. Or brands can inspire people to action.

Of course, this faux case study wouldn’t matter if the story was fully contained inside the TV box. But the story is far from contained in an historical frame, academic frame, or any other. The inadequacy marketing model is in full swing today and advertising professionals not only lack an answer for it, many of them are the problem. To refer back to Mad Men again, Don was appalled by the idea of Joan prostituting herself, but he was fine with promoting the idea that a Jaguar is akin to rich man’s mistress.

Let’s look at a real, contemporary Jaguar commercial to see if any traces of this “car as sex kitten” motif are in play:

Indeed. The spot opens on a man’s loving touch. It seems, this kitty still purrs.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.